One can think of happier choices for such an important event as the Chichester Festival than John Ford's The Broken Heart, the second of the three plays, which opened on Monday. Though it contains some fine verse, and plenty of eloquence of the florid kind, it remains something of a dreary museum-piece, complicated and obscure in plot, with too many characters, and long drawn out.
Ford lacked Shakespeare's power to kindle the human, universal spark, and one cannot get really involved in this story of vengeance, so dear to audiences of the early 17th century, set in ancient Sparta, and the anxieties of Penthea, married off to an elderly jealous nobleman by her brother Ithocles, who is hunted down and murdered by her lover.
The action quickens at the end, after a ponderous build-up, but not even the inevitable deaths, accomplished with stark coldness, and the ironical indifference of the King's daughter to the general suffering, can engender much emotional reaction.
It is a tribute to Laurence Olivier's production that, if feeling is not roused, at any rate attention is almost constantly held. The different levels of the open stage are used with remarkable and often beautiful results, and the décor, costumes and lighting make fine colour effects.
Perhaps there is some over-ingenuity and fussiness in using every possible point of entrance and exit, including the auditorium, and the stylised appearances on balconies sometimes deaden the sense of actuality. The music, too, is occasionally obtrusive, but John Addison's writing is notable in adding atmosphere, particularly in the ritualistic moments.
Even Sir Laurence, like some of the rest, is not always audible - perhaps the acoustics here are still something of a problem - but he gives a strong, flowing, wonderfully varied performance in a masterly effort to make the jealous Bassanes interesting, and is also a dignified, beautifully speaking Prologue.
The remainder of the company play on a generally high level. John Neville is outstanding for his diction and bearing as the avenging Orgilus, and Keith Michell's acting is so forthright that he almost makes us believe that Ithocles is a character of real flesh and blood. André Morrell's king, too, is rather more than a cardboard old man. Timothy Bateson breathes some life into the philosopher Tecnicus, and Arthur Brough, Robert Lang and Alan Howard are firm in smaller parts.
Of the women Fay Compton is sure and admirably clear in voice in the tiny part of Penthea's attendant; Rosemary Harris, as her mistress, has a slight shrillness to counteract the drooping pathos, and Joan Greenwood's affected superiority of tone as the Princess, while sometimes telling, is often too irritatingly contemporary to make us feel at home in Sparta.
The Stage and Television Today, 12.7.62.